You probably already know that more exercise and less stress will improve your sleep over time. But if you’re one of the 30 percent of Americans who suffer from symptoms of insomnia, you’re also aware that those lifestyle recommendations are no comfort when you’re gazing at the ceiling at 2 am.
First, don’t panic, says W. Chris Winter, MD, a board certified sleep specialist at the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic, and author of The Sleep Solution. “Many people have a ton of anxiety about their sleep, and struggle when it doesn’t work out the way they want during a particular night,” he says. “But if you can let go of the fear of not sleeping, insomnia has less power over you.”
And when you’re not counting sheep or watching the minutes tick by in a mild panic, it’s easier to actually fall back asleep, he says. We asked four sleep experts to share their best middle-of-the-night advice to get back to Dreamville — stat!
1. Kick off the covers
James Maas, PhD, a recently retired Cornell University professor and CEO of Sleep for Success, recommends keeping your bedroom no warmer than 67 degrees and ditching the thick blankets or heavy sleep clothes. “Moisture-wicking pajamas are a wonderful way to prevent the temperature fluctuations that can interfere with high-quality sleep,” he says. A study on older adults with insomnia showed that their inability to adequately gauge if they were too warm or too cold could be a contributor to poor sleep.
2. Calm your body
When day-to-day stress and worries start keeping you up, clearing your mind can seem impossible. Instead, Martha Cortés, DDS, a New York City sleep expert and founder of Sleep Fitness, recommends trying this progressive muscle relaxation technique. First, contract your toes, squeezing as hard as you can for 20 seconds before releasing. Continue the squeeze-and-release pattern with each muscle group, working up from your legs to your butt and then from your hands to your biceps. “By the time you get to your upper back and shoulders, you’ll probably be relaxed,” she says.
3. Have a cuppa
Whether it’s warm milk or hot tea, many people do find the ritual of enjoying a cozy cup relaxing when they can’t sleep, says Winter. Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse in New York City and founder of the holistic health site RemediesForMe, is a big fan of valerian root tea. The herb comes from a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, and can help with sleepiness “by increasing levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain, a neurotransmitter that’s critical for relaxation,” she says. Still, study results are mixed on the effectiveness of valerian, and it’s always wise to talk to your doctor before taking any sort of supplement.
4. Grab a book
Thumbing through a book or magazine may help take your mind off how awake you are and help you drift back to sleep, says Winter. Just a few words of warning: Remember to keep your reading light dim and avoid suspenseful books that may be more stimulating than soporific. Also avoid the temptation to read on your mobile phone: “Electronic devices emit light that can keep you up, especially when you’re holding a mobile phone close to your face,” he says. Consider buying an e-reader that comes with blue light reduction. If you use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, you may be able to adjust the color of your screen from cooler (more blue) to warmer (less blue) tones from sunset to sunrise. And if you can, try to read lying down rather than sitting upright in bed. If you stand or sit for an extended period of time, it may cue your brain that you’re starting the day rather than trying to get back to sleep, he says.
5. Keep it dim
If you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, be mindful to keep the lights dim. “Light is a natural stimulant, because our brains interpret any light as a signal to be alert,” says Dr. Winter. If your bathroom has a dimmer, the middle of the night is the time to use it, he says. Just make sure you have enough light to bathe safely.
If you continue to find it hard to fall asleep at night, you might consider some pre-bedtime measures, too. In addition to being a great relaxation technique, a hot shower or soak also spikes your body heat. When you step out, your internal temperature plummets — which aids the body’s natural cooling that begins daily around 3 pm and signals that it’s time to hit the hay, says Maas. Fun fact: Upon waking, the hypothalamus drives your body temp from its 98.6-degree baseline to about 100.4, helping you to feel alert, he says. In the evening, it drops down to 96.4 degrees.
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